The Alps Are Warming Up Twice As Fast As Anywhere Else

A glacier in the Alps — yes, those Alps, long synonymous with expressions like “snow-capped” — is melting, according to recent research presented at a December meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and faster than ever. From studying ice cores drilled from the Alto dell’Ortles glacier, a team of six glaciologists from Ohio State University has found that the Alps in Italy are melting “at an unprecedented rate.”

The Alto dell’Ortles glacier (at 2.4 miles above sea level, the highest glacier in the eastern Alps) has shown no sign of melting for thousands and thousands of years, as confirmed by the discovery of one dried-out leaf from a larch tree that existed some 2,600 years ago. The yellowed leaf was found encased in solid ice, around 240 feet below the surface and wedged below the “firn,” a layer of grainy, compacted snow that has partially melted.

Back in 2011, Paolo Gabrielli, a research scientist at Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State, and other researchers had found something worrisome: the first 100 feet of the glacier was composed of firn. Prior to this, the Alto dell’Ortles glacier had consisted of “nothing but solid and colder ice all the way down to the frozen bedrock.” As a press release from Oho State University explains, the researchers’ new finding

…suggests that snow was accumulating on the mountaintop and was compacted into ice for thousands of years without ever melting—until about 30 years ago, which is when each year’s new deposit of snow began melting.

The larch leaf, whose age was determined via carbon dating, is evidence for “the idea that prehistoric ice is still present at the highest elevations of the region,” says Gabrielli. But the fact that the scientists were able to find the leaf at all suggests how climate change is changing, or rather has changed, the Alps.

The scientists are now chemically analyzing the ice cores, to see if trace metals and dust frozen into the glacier can give clues to the climactic conditions that existed when it was formed, and also to get a better understanding of why temperatures in the Alps have been increasing at twice the rate around the world.

While the Alps are often depicted as a place of pristine, snowy beauty, in reality the Alto dell’Ortles glacier is located in what can be called the very “heart of Europe — one of the most industrialized and populated areas of the world.” Gabrielli and the other glaciologists are now investigating what role soot from central and southern Europe might play in this accelerated warming. Might such pollution be causing the surface of the glacier to darken, so that it absorbs more of the sun’s heat and then its ice melts?

The larch leaf was found less than 20 miles away from where the 5,000-year-old frozen body Ötzi the Iceman was found by two hikers in 1991. After this discovery, Austrian scientists removed Ötzi‘s body from the ice. His mummified remains are now preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano and have yielded many fascinating details about the daily life of humans 5,000 years ago in the Copper Age.

As intriguing as it is to have found Ötzi‘s body and to learn all that we have from this discovery, it is also worrisome to know that so much of the Alto dell’Ortles glacier has melted to reveal what had been preserved for millennia. The glacier’s ice indeed harbors many secrets, in the form of life — a man, a leaf — frozen intact for years and years and in those chemical traces of metals and dust that can, it is hoped, offer us some clues about climate when the earth was younger. Let’s just hope that we humans can work on reducing emissions of fossil fuels, stop the pace of deforestation and take other measures to stem the rate of global warming, else what remains of the Alto dell’Ortles glacier might melt away before we can learn all we need to.


Photo from Thinkstock


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

Mark D.,
First, you need the distinguish between carbon MONoxide and carbon DIoxide. The former is a killer, while the latter is life essential. Without knowing this, how can you contribute reasonably? Resorting to name-calling, only detracts from your argument.
Also, carbon dioxide is heavier than air, so how can it rise into the stratosphere? It also exchanges readily between air, land, and sea, do your 100-year lifetime seems highly suspect.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner2 years ago

Dan B. belongs to the gang of overpopulated psychotic human neanderthals who would leave their car running in a closed garage and murder their family, because he "can't smell the carbon monoxide" killing him. By the same token when 20+ billion tons of carbon monoxide yearly into a closed atmosphere, beyond what the biological systems of earth are capable of absorbing that CO2 has to go somewhere, and yes it does Danny, that 20 billion tons ends up in the upper atmosphere and lingers there for an average of 100 years, at the same dramatically accelerating release of CO2 and Methane locked up for eons. The Earth's depleted biological systems cannot "adjust" to this attack by humanity in a period of 200 years, as it had to do in previous dramatic natural climate shifts which took tens to hundreds of millions of years with an intact biosphere. The earth is succumbing to the human virus and that's a fact.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner2 years ago

Humans are in general a virus, in fact I consider viruses to be more wise, intelligent and evolved than the human nightmare.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

Erik r.
If you had followed my earlier links, you would have seen the glacier data showing advanced and recession over the past several millenia. Melting periods have occurred repeatedly since the last gkacisl maximum. Calling scientific research, "comic books" does little for your credibility.

Erik Roth
Ernest R.2 years ago

@ Dan B."However, this rate is not unusual by historical standards" Ah, more scientific reassurance. When snow has been "compacted into ice for thousands of years without ever melting—until about 30 years ago", I have to wonder from what comic book you are getting your "historical standards".

Laurence Wuillemin
Past Member 2 years ago

By the way, we've been fighting against the Olympic games here in Bavaria because for example if the winter isn't coming in 2022, it would mean that they need a lot of water to make fake snow and it's so stupid... AND WE WON!!!! ;-))))

June Bostock
June Bostock2 years ago


Duane B.
.2 years ago

As cold as it has been where I live, maybe I need to move to the Alps! :-) Thank you for sharing.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

Brian F.,
Of course the glacier melt has increased since the 1970s; temperatures have risen. However, this rate is not unusual by historical standards. Yes, some may disappear. They will regenerate when colder temperatures resume. Most melting has occurred in alpine glacier, which are most susceptible to changes in temperature (Alps, Andes, Rockies, etc.). Very little melt has occurred in the Himalayas. Indeed, what has occurred is a monsoon-relared shift towards the west. This is likely a temporary situation, with glaciers shifting back eastward. The Greenland melt was largely the result of a warm North Atlantic current. Melt has subsided recently - although could continue. Antarctica is still gaining ice, although at an almost imperceptibly small rare. This melt will occur during any warming, regardless of the cause. Sea level has been rise at ~2.5 mom per year for a century. This is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.